‘We’ve lost the rear oscillator,” says the snow leopard to Lord Asriel. James McAvoy’s face tightens, because his fascinatingly realised steampunkish flying machine is on a collision course with what air crash investigators call, in their quaint way, the ground. How does he propose to complete the recruitment drive for his war against the Authority if his corpse ends up pulled from the wreckage? Let’s not even go there. “Brace!” he yells to his daemon as he activates an appealingly old-school parachute.
Welcome to the final series of His Dark Materials (BBC One), one that will cover the action of The Amber Spyglass, the last volume of Philip Pullman’s trilogy. How poignant that the BBC has chosen the festive season to broadcast Jack Thorne’s virtuosic adaptation of Pullman’s no-less virtuosic inversion of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not that I’m complaining, but its appearance in the yuletide schedules does clinch the point that Christmas is not the season to celebrate the birth of our redeemer, but for rampant atheism – whether in the form of the worship of mammon or Pullman’s compelling broadside against organised religion.
While in Milton’s poem Satan and his cohorts are cast out from heaven, Pullman’s fantasy has it that the empyrean is already ruled by an angel just as hubristic and power-crazed as that would-be usurper. “For many millennia the Authority has ruled the kingdom of heaven with absolute control,” says one angel to another in a delicately animated sequence of diaphanous spirits in a starry skyscape. “He named himself the Creator, the Father, the Almighty. He is none of those but just an angel like us.” I’m no theologian but it’s a speech that problematises the narrative that around this time 2022 years ago the almighty sent his only son to wash away our sins.
Thorne doesn’t balk at dramatising these weighty theological matters. Indeed, this opening episode has a contemplative mood, fittingly because we’re in the calm before the storm when Asriel will lead his mustered forces against the Authority, with the aid of Will Parry and his subtle knife, not to mention our heroine Lyra Belacqua and her manifest destiny, which is to kill death and lead the deceased back to life.
Unfortunately, though, the action sequences are all sizzle and no steak. Will unleashes his subtle knife for a fight to the death with armoured polar bear Iorek Byrnison, but it comes to nothing. Drones fly overhead but there is no battle. Even the crash landing leaves Lord Asriel with his inexcusable pony tail unruffled.
Faster than you can say “red alethiometer, yellow alethiometer”, Asriel and his snow leopard dust themselves down and rush across the countryside to spring a potential ally, Commander Ogunwe, from jail. Asriel singlehandedly kills all the guards in a scene that misfires – there is no doubt he will triumph in this task, which puts the body count in inverse relation to dramatic tension.
The CGI is superlative, though. I really do believe that an armoured polar bear is prowling the decks of a fishing trawler and that Will Parry’s miraculous blade can cut through sky to take us to other worlds.
And how lovely to see Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Ogunwe. He excels as a sad-eyed father whose daughter has been kidnapped and had her daemon surgically severed before she makes it home, traumatised. There is one especially poignant moment where McAvoy glances as Akinnuoye-Agbaje with empathy and also with pained envy for what is missing in his life. Unlike Ogunwe, Lord Asriel cannot soothe his daughter. He has chosen to save the world rather than accept parental responsibilities.
This theme of what parenting involves here proves more engaging than all the theology and action of the first episode. Asriel is a bad dad but outdone in parenting by his ex, Ruth Wilson’s captivatingly evil Mrs Coulter. Kidnapping then chloroforming your daughter to stop her fulfilling her manifest destiny battling crypto-fascistic priests is in no parenting manual I’ve read.
William Blake wrote that Milton, in creating a compelling Satan, was of the devil’s party without knowing it. Pullman has perhaps equally unwittingly created something similar in Mrs Coulter. Certainly Ruth Wilson’s seductively satanic turn eclipses Nicole Kidman’s merely chilly performance of the same role in the 2007 film. Wilson’s Mrs Coulter 2.0 is one-third Margaret Thatcher, one-third Cruella de Vil and one-third eloquent eyebrows – plus a succession of burgundy tops and Oxford bags that make her quite the diabolical clothes horse. It will be sad to see her get her comeuppance.
His Dark Materials season three is available to watch on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK, and on Foxtel and Binge in Australia.